A man in a lab coat standing in a lab.

Using bacteria to devour greenhouse gas—and produce bio fuels

Published On
January 22, 2019

(Edmonton) Researchers across the province were awarded $20.5 million in funding today to support clean energy technology development.

A total of 29 projects in post-secondary and industry received the funding through Alberta Innovates, as part of its Climate Change Innovation Technology Framework. Of the 29, 15 University of Alberta applicants for funding were successful. Of those, 11 grants were awarded to Faculty of Engineering researchers.

One project, led by chemical engineering professor Dominic Sauvageau, is using bacteria to eat methane—a potent greenhouse gas—and convert it into cleaner sources of biofuel.

Sauvageau says a group of bacteria called methanotrophs use methane and methanol as food, converting them into compounds that can be used in the production of biofuels and fuel additives.

One part of the challenge is breeding populations of these bacteria large enough to produce these compounds at a commercial scale.

“These bacteria are found in environment as low-density populations,” says Sauvageau. “They grow slowly and they produce some compounds naturally, but of course they haven’t evolved to be used commercially. We have to help them on that side.”

Sauvageau, in partnership with Faculty of Science professor Lisa Stein and chemical engineering professor William McCaffrey, is approaching the problem from two directions.

“We need to be able to make a lot of these bacteria, and they need to make a lot of the product at a rate that is fast enough that we have a process that is economically viable,” he said.

“We’re looking for ways to make conditions more amenable for these cells to be more productive and on the other side, we’re working on the genetics so we can have them produce a wider array of valuable compounds.”

The impact of this research could be significant. Sauvageau imagines having bioreactors on site at wastewater treatment plants, pulp and paper mills, landfills, and other facilities that emit methane and methanol.

If successful, a common waste byproduct—methane—could be turned into a profitable product. The outcome would be reduced greenhouse gas emissions and production of compounds for use as fuel additives, in the production of advanced biofuels, and in bio jet fuels.

Another engineering project, run by mechanical engineering professor Sonoj Abraham, is leading the way to develop nano-particle coatings to improve energy efficiency of windows. Abraham’s team is developing coatings that will improve the performance of windows without costly retrofitting.

“The impact of this funding is that it helps us demonstrate this technology,” he said, adding that his team is in talks with the university to apply the coating to windows in two U of A buildings.

Alberta Economic Development and Trade Minister Deron Bilous said the fund helps advance Alberta as a centre for energy technology.

“When people think of energy, we want them to think of Alberta,” he said. “We want them to hire our talented, brilliant engineers and scientists.”

Originally posted on University of Alberta’s blog – Folio

Sherri Bouslama